All You Know About Ninja Is Probably "Wrong"

Those black suits. Those weapons. Martial arts. The image of the ninja is rooted more in fiction than fact. Everything you think you know is probably more "wrong" than "right".

Ninja most certainly did exist in Japan, but they were more about information -- and disinformation -- than just assassination. Yes, there were ninja assassins, but as Ninja Attack author and game localizer Matt Alt points out, what percentage of CIA employees are trained assassins?

In Ninja Attack, Alt and co-author Hiroko Yoda examine the historical ninja. (Full disclosure: Tuttle, which is re-releasing one of my books, Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, is republishing Alt and Yoda's book.) "A 15th century ninja would laugh out loud at the sight of a dude in black pajamas running around a modern city," says Alt. "The whole point of a ninja was to blend in." Ninja often dressed as farmers so they could do just that as they collected information and scouted enemies.

Explains Alt: "Imagine that the year is 1600. Two of your enemies are fighting a battle, so you send a couple of guys dressed as farmers to the area to watch the battle and report back to about what's happening. That's ninja work." A perfect example of this can be found in the classic Akira Kurosawa film Kagemusha.

And since many ninja dressed as farmers (heck, many ninja strongholds were in rural areas), the weapon of choice was likely the "kusari-gama", which was a sickle with a chain attached. According to Alt, this weapon was ideal because it could be easily dissembled into farmer's tools. Remember, the point is to blend in, and nothing is more suspicious than a guy carrying throwing stars, right? Yes, suriken (throwing stars) existed, but Alt says it's still unclear how they were used: Were they used to slash? Did ninja flash them and brandish them as a threat? Were they thrown? There's no historical record of throwing stars being decisive in combat, says Alt.

Then there are the swords. It's unlikely that ninja had samurai swords, because those weapons were a samurai birthright. If a ninja stole a samurai sword, that would be the equivalent of impersonating a police officer and he (or she) would be put to death. Yes, some ninja did have swords that were made in their local villages, but the idea that each ninja carried the a standard set of weapons (suriken and swords) and wore the same outfits (black pajamas) is, as Alt says, "ridiculous". Different ninja had different purposes, so there wasn't a set kit for the historical ninja.

There's a myth that ninja only used throwing stars, swords, and knives -- that they didn't use modern weapons. This myth is incorrect. "Ninja were at the cutting edge of weapons technology of their day, experimenting with explosives and diversions and flintlock rifles and anything that would give them an edge," says Alt. Flintlock rifles were essentially the assault weapons of their day. "Believe me, a 16th century ninja would have been overjoyed with a pair of night-vision goggles or a modern assault rifle or a stealth drone," says Alt. "They just didn't exist back then, so the ninja had to make do with what they had."

Like cowboys in the Wild West, ninja lore built up over time. A stock set of iconography came to define the ninja. The ninja as part of Japanese popular culture really started to take off during the 1700s, when ninja characters appeared in books and plays. The word "ninja" didn't appear until the 1800s -- long after real ninja existed. Before that, a whole array of words were used to describe them -- from "shinobi" to "A dude from Iga". Before the 19th century, the notion of ninja was connected more to magic and fantasy. So when storytellers began grounding their ninja in reality, they needed a way to explain how ninja could become invisible. Artist Hokusai gets credit for the first image of ninja in the classic black suit. It appeared in the early 19th century, and it could've been based on "kuroko", Japan's traditional theatrical stagehands.

For Alt, there's been a hyper focus on martial arts and ninja in the West. In Japan, however, ninja are still associated with spying. The discrepancy is related to how the ninja spread. It wasn't until fairly recent that ninja were known outside Japan's boarders. In the 1960s, the Bond film You Only Live Twice put ninja on the map in the West; in the 1970s, there was the big martial arts boom, which engulfed the ninja; the 1980s saw American Ninja as well as Frank Miller's comics; then, of course, there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

When I say what you know about ninja is "wrong", I'm using quotes because this iconography, while not historically accurate, was created, refined, and tweaked in Japan. The mythic ninja appears in Japanese manga, TV, film, video games and more. Japan excels at creating memorable characters; along with Godzilla and Hello Kitty, the ninja is one of its best. So, yes, the ninja of popular culture differs from real ninja (and if you want to know about real ninja, check out Alt's book), but the ninja of popular culture is so vivid and so fascinating, that it's easy to see why Japan has continued to embrace this mythos.

But what happened to the ninja? The real ninja? According to Alt, they didn't go anywhere. Says Alt, "Every special forces team, every commando, every espionage agent and even researcher is performing the exact same role a ninja did back in the day."

(Top photo: Ronen | Shutterstock)


    I disagree, this website has the REAL scoop on ninjas

      Ahhh, classic. Can't believe it's still up!

    Is it just me or does knowing this now, make ninjas (in the sense of Alt's book) even more awesome? That there could indeed be ninjas among us dressed as everyday people reporting back to a covert organisation about the goings-on of modern day life.

    I highly, highly recommend anyone who goes to Japan for a holiday to take a day out and visit the Iga Ninja Museum, a couple of hours out of Osaka. All the stuff in this article basically comes straight from the (English language) displays at the museum, which is built up around a recreation of a real ninja home, training ground etc. And you'll get to see the rural side of Japan while you're at it, a big change of pace from the cities... and there's even a castle down the road you can visit too.

      I'm heading there at the end of the year, thanks for the advice i will have to check it out.

    An interesting read. However this comes across is a little ingracious because it feels like your just doing this article to try and help sell a book since thats your only source.

    Interesting stuff, makes a lot of sense

    I remember in Japanese history class we covered a segment on ninja and the role they played in feudal times. The material wasn't as in-depth as I would have liked, but it was emphasised their main role was as spies/reconnaissance agents.

    You mean the saucy female ninjas of "Phantom Agents" weren't real? Do you really HAVE to ruin all my hopes and dreams? Bastards!

      Historical ninjas trained in eighteen separate disciplines, one of which was seduction. Your saucy kunoichi might be more accurate than you think =)

      Last edited 29/05/15 8:54 pm

    QUOTE: "Yes, suriken [sp] (throwing stars) existed, but Alt says it’s still unclear how they were used: Were they used to slash? Did ninja flash them and brandish them as a threat? Were they thrown? There’s no historical record of throwing stars being decisive in combat, says Alt."

    Shuriken were thrown to simply 'graze' the opponent in a day when sepsis and tetanus was often absolutely lethal. That these "experts" on the subject were unable to unearth this well-known information speaks volumes about their work.

      So they can just reference you then? Or do you have a source?

      That doesn't sound real helpful in a battle - chuck a shuriken and hope your opponent gets sick in a day. I suspect that they were more of a nuisance weapon like caltrops, for slowing and distracting your enemy. Sure, you'd probably rub them in some dirt or faeces for that extra kick of sepsis and tetanus, but I doubt this was the primary purpose of using them.

    A Ninja were also disgraced Samurai or who have no master, selling their skills from time to time. This I believe has been proven and hence why some did have samurai swords but oh well.

      Nope, your thinking of Ronin.

      All up this artical was way better than expected.

      I think you'll find that is more lined up with Ronin - though there is nothing stopping a Ronin becoming a Ninja - you would still question the intelligence gathered by someone who has lost their honour.

      In a land where honour was everything it's more likely that a spy network (Ninja fraternity) would consist of members who have all taken oaths of fealty to the house and lord.
      Oh and for assassinations - there is another group - Tongs. A Tong was basically a criminal family with it's own honour system which ensured loyalty. Though even less is known about the various Tongs than Ninja. Unfortunately as with secret criminal endeavours there is a lot of mistique, misinformation and no real documented history to speak of.

        Tongs are a Chinese concept, not Japanese. Which is not to say there aren't Japanese organized crime syndicates, but I doubt that they would be used in political assassinations etc. That would be like the US government paying the mafia to carry out hits on people. Not impossible but pretty unlikely to be something regular, especially when they have multiple internal agencies which have people properly trained to do that sort of job a lot more efficiently.

        I've read that the ninja were often used by the Samurai to carry out tasks and work that went against the Bushido code so they wouldn't be dishonored. Ninja were often soldiers who had lost their honour on the battlefield so there wasn't as much of a question of being dishonoured doing dirty work and thus they were more or less expendable.

    Killjoy article... *covers ears* I'm not listening *continues to play with swords and ninja stars*

    This is news to people? Even watching naruto can help you discern how ninjas operated in many ways. Having said that I learnt most through my ninjitsu dojo.

    You would already know this if you subscribe to Cracked. Dat Cracked, so informative.

    That said, I think it's good to dispel that myth.
    Next time, cover how pirates aren't at all like how we think they are. No ridiculous accents, no peglegs, hooks and one eyes for every single guy, no burying chests. All myth!

      Actually, the eye patch was used so that they could keep night adaptation in one eye for when going below deck.

    I went to the Iga Ninja Museum when I was in Japan and it was fantastic. Especially seeing the live demonstrations and some of the training techniques they used. Ninja would lift hay bales (about 60kg) with two fingers each day so they could hang from rafters with one hand free and they were really inventive such as making a variation on snowshoes so they could walk easily on swampy ground.

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